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Is Swimming Effective for Weight Loss? (Part One)

When popular weight loss expert Covert Bailey wrote in his bestseller "Fit or Fat" that he did not recommend swimming for weight loss, he was besieged by angry swimmers who thought that he was disparaging their sport. He explained in a later book, "The New Fit or Fat", that he never said that swimming made people fat. However, he said that he had noticed (he claims to have taken the body fat measurements of thousands of people) that swimmers tended to have higher body fat percentages than other people. It is his opinion that swimming does not help to reduce body fat but that it is good exercise to start with for overweight people.

You may have read advice similar to Bailey's or you may have come across the opposite -- that swimming is just as effective as land-based exercise in helping weight loss. It seems that there are conflicting recommendations is because there are also conflicting research studies.

Flawed hyped-up study
Ellen Evans writes, in the article "Can Water Exercise Tip the Scale" from Idea Today magazine, that it was a well-publicized 1987 study that was instrumental in convincing the public and many fitness writers that swimming was not effective for weight loss. The study compared the effects of swimming, stationary cycling and walking in overweight women. The study participants did one hour of exercise daily for six months. The researchers found that the weight of the walkers and cyclists decreased by 12 percent but there was no change for the swimmers. Fat measured at the back of the arm decreased for the women who walked or cycled but not for those who swam. This led the scientists to conclude that swimming was not effective for weight loss. They also proposed the theory that swimming in cold water (74 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit) may increase appetite levels to force the body to retain body fat for insulation and buoyancy.

Unfortunately, Evans says that the study had several major defects. Exercise intensity, attendance and diets were not controlled. The only measurements taken were body weight and one skinfold measurement (fat under the skin is pinched and measured with a caliper) taken at the back of the arm. Lean body mass and total body fat percentage were never calculated so it is possible that the swimmers may have increased muscle mass because of the resistance of the water and this is why their total body weight did not go down. It is also possible that the swimmers were not as consistent with their attendance or their diets were higher in calories than the other participants .

Conflicting studies
In contrast, Evans mentions another study in 1989 that found that sedentary young men who engaged in eleven and a half weeks of swimming for one hour three days a week lost 2.4 percent of body fat. The other participants who did a comparable amount and intensity of running lost 1.8 percent.

A 1992 study also reported significant decreases in body fat with swimming writes Mary Sanders, a well-known aquatic fitness expert, in the article "Water Fitness Research" also for Idea Today .

Body fat and appetite in swimmers
Do swimmers really have big appetites? This is what Vogue writer Mark Ellen Mark wanted to find out when he interviewed the University of Southern California's women's swim team coach Mark Schubert for the article "The Athletic Aesthetic". Schubert said that he noticed that his swimmers tended to "strap on the feedbag after a (swimming) workout". He mentioned that his competitive swimmers do a lot of fast-speed anaerobic interval type training that burns a large amount of calories and this may contribute to their giant appetites.

Jaci VanHeest, director of exercise physiology of the United States Swimming Association told Shape writer Suzanne Schlosberg that although elite swimmers and runners burn approximately the same calories while training (swimmers spend more time working out), top swimmers have 3 percent to 5 percent more body fat that top runners do. The cold water/appetite theory was again fingered as the culprit .

Swimming versus land-based exercise
One of the reasons why land-based exercises like running are recommended for weight loss over swimming is because you would have to do high intensity swimming to achieve the same caloric burn as running at a comfortable pace. For example, Shape fitness writer Suzanne Schlosberg points out that a 135-pound woman would burn about 12 calories per minute running at a recreationally realistic nine-minute a mile pace or eight calories per minute slow jogging at eleven and a half minutes a mile. That same woman, Schlosberg says, would only burn eight calories minute swimming freestyle at a pace of one minute and thirty seconds per 100 yards, which she claims is a relatively fast pace that the average swimmer cannot maintain for long.

The other reason is that land-based exercises are suggested rather than swimming is that it requires more skill than running, walking, jogging, using the stepper or stationary bike. It also requires access to a swimming pool. Walking, running or jogging can be done almost anywhere .

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